The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI has had two key themes: the crisis engulfing humanity in modern man-made culture and the possibility of rediscovering the antidote. Crisis and Christ, or perhaps, crisis in a Christian world in Christ’s apparent absence.
These two strands have been interwoven in virtually every public statement of this extraordinary pope.
Yet, most people remain convinced that he spoke of nothing but abortion and homosexuality.
Even now, in the final days of Pope Benedict’s effervescent leadership, the pennies show no signs of dropping. Joseph Ratzinger was not an economist.
Whenever, as Benedict XVI, he spoke directly to the economic condition of mankind, he followed fairly conventional lines of Catholic social teaching, though always taking pains to remind the world that human beings are not fundamentally defined by their material dimensions.
In his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, he pointed out that it is not the business of the church to offer technical solutions to the problems of society, but to draw attention to the nature and structure of man.
He had, for example, some things to say about markets and how they might be rescued from ideology and harnessed to a moral purpose in the common good.
Such themes, given a chance, might have sparked an important “secular” discussion, if the journalists had not been furiously scanning the text for the words “homosexuality” or “abortion”.
But Benedict moved towards a different conclusion: none of this could be separated from the person and presence of Christ. By then, alas, the journalists had left the building.
With equal insistence, the pope reminded humankind of the dangers of misunderstanding human desiring, of pursuing too narrow a definition of freedom, of misusing reason in ways that would make these errors unavoidable.
He consistently characterised the condition of modern society as defined by a futile pursuit of things that do not exist.
There is, he told us in that dazzling “bunker” speech in the Bundestag in September 2011, an “ecology of man”. Man, he said, “is not merely self-creating freedom” – he is intellect and will, but also nature, “and his will is rightly ordered if he listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled”.
Two years ago, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the pope journeyed across Rome to the Piazza di Spagna, where he spoke pointedly of “the city” and contrasted the loving example of the Blessed Virgin with the persistent drumbeat of negativity in the news media. By “the city”, he indicated much more than the source of prevailing difficulties in the economic realm.
He was, rather, invoking the total man-made reality which, for all its beauty and utilitarian qualities, contains many traps for human longing.
The city becomes home to us but also steals our capacity to look deeply.
“People become bodies and these bodies lose their souls, they become things, faceless objects that can be exchanged and consumed.” We complain of the pollution that makes parts of the city difficult to breathe in. “Yet there is another kind of contamination, less perceptible to the senses, but equally dangerous. It is the pollution of the spirit; it makes us smile less, makes our faces gloomier, less likely to greet each other or look each other in the eye.”
Had we been disposed, or enabled, to pay attention, we might well, over the past eight years, have devised a more useful map of ourselves and our present condition.
We might have begun making connections between the nature of the human and the nature of the crisis that besets the systems we have generated for human welfare and convenience. We might have been struck by the idea of growing debt as evidence of something more than technical malfunction – perhaps as an indicator of the ravenousness of human desires when unmoored from core meanings.
All this we missed, and much more besides. The main problem faced by Pope Benedict, I wrote five years ago, is that he was obliged to address his people through the megaphone of his enemies.
Hence, his every word was drowned out by clichés from the gatekeepers of modern culture. He was “God’s Rottweiler”, a renegade “liberal” who had become an implacable enemy of “progress”, etc, etc.
None of this is surprising. All over the crime scene of the crisis that engulfs western society are to be found the fingerprints of a media which, behind the facade of objective reporting of reality, pursues an ideological mission inextricably entangled with an economic one.
The objective is to make the world free for human desire understood in its crudest form – as the small engine of a society driven by growth, borrowing and the mindless pursuit of baubles.
Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that every word of Pope Benedict has been twisted beyond recognition.